On Diversity in Children’s Literature

A year and a half ago, NPR’s list of 100 “Best-Ever Teen Novels” was blasted by teachers and writers as being extremely white. Out of the 100 books on the list, only two were about characters of color: House on Mango Street by Sanra Cisneros and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.

Blame was laid on the editors of the list and the voters. Better lists have definitely been made. A lot of great books with diversity were ignored while the list contains many novels that are actually middle-grade or adult. They also repeat a lot of authors (ex. John Green five times).

However, the problem isn’t just with NPR or their list-making procedures. Literature for children and teens is pretty homogenous. Particularly fantasy, which, like adult fantasy, tends to be Eurocentric.

That’s not to say there are no good fantasy books starring other ethnicities…

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I’m saying there still aren’t enough yet. The books above are all pretty recent. I think the situation is improving, but walking through a bookstore, it’s very hard to find covers featuring characters who aren’t white–especially in the middle-grade/young-adult fantasy section.

I don’t want to make too big a deal about the fact that the characters’ faces are obscured on The Savage Fortress and The Summer Prince because there are a lot of white characters who have their faces obscured as well. It’s a trend in cover art. I don’t want to make a big deal, but I feel like it is important. Both Liar by Justine Larbalestier and Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolamore feature black protagonists, but the original covers were blatantly white-washed. Outcry from blogs like Reading in Color eventually caused the covers to change.

Larbalestier objected to this cover. She didn’t want Micah’s face on the cover at all.

Reading in Color also has an interesting post on the new cover given to Cindy Pon’s paperback after initial sales for Silver Phoenix were slow.

The author’s response can be found here.

So yeah. Visibility is still a problem.

I find it hard to fault people for not knowing about books with diverse characters when I actively hunt for them and still have trouble finding the kind of stuff I’m looking for.

The books I’ve chosen to feature in today’s post are all fantasy books about people of color, written by people of color (except Justine Larbalestier, who I used for the first cover example). That’s an important part of racefail–that we need to hear from people with different voices, not just imaginings about them.

Straight white abled authors (like me) writing about diverse characters are also out there, and I think they’re doing good work. Still, the main point of my post today can be summed up as “It isn’t enough… yet.”

Next post will continue on mainstream treatment of diversity by tackling one of the juggernauts… Disney.

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